Oh right, 8Tracks! The original human-curated playlist startup is still going strong with five million active users
At some point amid all the Tweets, GChats, status updates, pins, yams,* emails and rapid fire blog posts, we hit a breaking point and turn into the guy from Memento.
It’s like we know something sounds familiar, or important, or like we’ve been here before, possibly five minutes ago, but we can’t remember a damn thing for more than 15 seconds. Oh well, onto the next thing! Such is life in the merry-go-round tech news cycle.
At least that’s how I felt when I got wind of a big update to 8Tracks, a cool music streaming service that’s been around since 2006 and is still kicking. Oh right! Those guys! I thought. How easy it was for me to quickly assume that something has failed the minute that updates on its every move stop reverberating across the techochamber. I believe that’s what they call going “heads down” and I’m starting to see why fewer and fewer tech companies partake in such an act. Everyone might assume they’ve disappeared.
Meanwhile, I have been swooning over Songza’s concierge service, congratulating the startup for its revelation that human-curated playlists trump the algorithm-generated playlists of Pandora. I, and the rest of the Web, wrote these words with zero mention of the fact that 8Tracks has been here doing the same thing, basically, for several years.
That fact was not lost on 8Tracks founder David Porter. He tersely noted the similarity between the two services on 8Tracks’ Facebook page and blog. This was back in 2010 (2010! lifetimes ago!), when Songza debuted its playlist option. But even with a copycat of 8Tracks’ user-generated playlists, Songza failed to gain traction.
It wasn’t until this year, when Songza launched “Concierge,” a service that recommends playlists created by experts based on the time of day and your mood, that the service took off. “Epic film soundtracks” for a Tuesday afternoon of focused work, “90s crowd-pleasing hits” for getting ready to go out on a Saturday night. The app went viral, snapping up two million monthly active users and grabbing the attention of investors to the tune of $1.5 million. I got excited because the company fit perfectly into one of my pet themes — it had abandoned big data algos for human curation. What’s more, Songza had succeeded by doing exactly what Kevin Systrom says made Instagram what it is today. Songza’s founders didn’t wait for hockey stick growth; they tested and tweaked things until they found something users loved.
The reason Songza’s founders say they abandoned user-generated playlists is because they came up short on quality. However, user-generated playlists have worked just fine for 8Tracks. The site directs you to an appropriate playlist with a recommendation engine called Explore that is as precocious as Songza’s. Front page options include “chill,” “summer,” “sex,” “sad,” “workout,” etc. Choose “sex,” for example, and you’re prompted to be more specific. Are you seeking a playlist for sex that is “dirty,” “fuck,” “weed,” “rough,” “morning,” “sensual” or “sexy?” Or will it be, I’m very sorry to say, “sleep”?
Songza’s concierge is similarly as personal, and when it’s on, it’s wonderful. A Songza “Driving to the beach” playlist was spot on one afternoon over the summer (clearly, if I’m still thinking about it); a Songza “Cooking italian food” playlist served up the perfect mood for a dinner party. The playlists of both services trump Pandora’s music genome algorithms. Regardless of whether they’re created by pedigreed expert music curators or mere plebeian Internet “users,” Songza and 8Tracks beat the Pandora dichotomy of either veering into WTF territory or repeating the same predictable songs.
All of that is to say, despite the lack of daily press coverage, 8Tracks is still around, with five million monthly active users streaming 10 million hours of songs a month on the service. Web visits doubled over the last year and listening hours tripled. Both 8Tracks and Songza are contributing to the increasingly fragmented buffet of listening options we’re consuming. The reach of traditional radio may still be as strong as ever at 90-some percent. But listening hours are in decline because we’re now splitting our radio time with Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, MOG, 8Tracks, Songza, TheFuture.fm, Plug.dj, and if you’re one of 50,000 mega-fans, Turntable.fm.
Today the company launched a revamped iOS app, which features mix discovery and genre combo functions already available on the the Web, as well as social features. The company, which existed for years a “somewhere between a startup and an open source project,” last year raised a round of capital of
up to $5 $1.2 million to professionalize things from Index Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, SoftTech, SPA, Pete Tong (a DJ), and Ben Drury, founder of 7Digital.
8Tracks’ Porter has referred to the company as a “soulful, handcrafted David to the algorithmic Goliath of Pandora.” It’s a little ironic, considering yesterday I used the same cliched metaphor (sans weird adjectives) to describe Pandora and its relationship with traditional radio incumbent Clear Channel. Except in my example, Pandora was the David.
Pandora is now both big enough and, as a public company, under enough pressure, that it occupies the strange role of disruptor and disruptee. Pandora’s disruptees do offer a superior service. And yet! It would not be very difficult for Pandora to introduce a playlist functionality. It doesn’t even require a different “on-demand” licensing situation — Songza plays by the same royalty and “limited skip” rules. Who knows if Pandora will ever do that, but as a public company it has the resources available to do so if it wants to.
Meanwhile, the stakes are a lot higher for the Goliath that Pandora has been playing David to for the last ten years. Traditional radio has a lot more to lose if Pandora disrupts it. The industry’s biggest incumbent is finally starting to relent to the possibility its business will eventually go the way of print newspapers. Yesterday Clear Channel went so far as to team up with its disruptor to lobby Congress to keep costs down for digital streaming services.
So now it seems the radio industry, both online and terrestrial, is a bunch of Davids with no Goliath. Which brings me back to the Memento guy. Remember a time when we actually bought music? Yeah, me either.
*Yammer messages. Yams of the sweet potato variety can actually improve your memory, if this dubious-looking article is accurate.